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State cuts sideline sheriff's work crew

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By JOHN FLOWERS

MIDDLEBURY — When Middlebury’s Probation and Parole office folded in late January, so did a low-cost work detail through which area offenders performed various community service projects that saved Addison County taxpayers thousands of dollars.

The work detail was established 18 years ago by the Addison County Sheriff’s Department and the Vermont Department of Corrections’ local Probation and Parole office. It was a program through which the sheriff’s department provided transportation, supervision, tools and project ideas for low-risk offenders to tackle as part of their court-mandated community service punishment.

“It took off like gangbusters,” Addison County Sheriff James Coons recalled. “Demand exceeded the supply (of workers).”

That demand came primarily from nonprofits and municipalities that needed help for basic painting, ground maintenance, hauling and repair chores.

The Probation and Parole office paid roughly $10,000 annually for the program, a sum that paid basic operating costs and for sheriff’s deputies’ supervision of the workers. For 40 weekends each year, the sheriff’s department would gather up to 10 offenders whom they would take to worksites throughout the county for eight-hour-per-day chores.

“It really got to be a great program,” said Coons, who saw the work details as a “win-win”; participating offenders would get out into the fresh air, learn a skill and do something for the community they had wronged, while the benefiting nonprofits and towns would see the completion of tasks that would otherwise have gone undone or cost money to complete.

“It freed up taxpayer money,” Coons said, noting his work crews painted the former Salisbury and Whiting elementary schools, as well as the Waltham town offices.

“These jobs are alternatives to incarceration,” he added of the program, unique to Addison County. “It’s not just someone laying around in a cell and costing a lot of money.”

But the work details officially ceased on Feb. 1, the date on which the Middlebury Probation and Parole office closed at the Carbro Building on Exchange Street. The four probation/parole staffers were reassigned to offices in Burlington and Rutland. The move has drawn such fierce criticism from local victims’ advocates and prosecutors that the Vermont Corrections Department is considering re-establishing the Middlebury office, contingent on finding a low-cost or no-cost space.

Meanwhile, the work detail remains what local officials called a low-cost, high-return casualty of Probation and Parole’s departure from Middlebury.

“It’s something else that was of benefit to people,” said Addison County State’s Attorney John Quinn. “I’m disappointed it was a casualty of this (Probation and Parole) cut.”

Quinn said the program provided a valuable, supervised setting through which people could provide restitution.

The court will now have to pick community service options that may not have as much supervision, or not produce as big a payoff for local communities, officials said.

The sheriff’s department’s work detail has produced a big payoff for agencies like Helping Overcome Poverty’s Effects (HOPE), a Middlebury-based nonprofit that supplies affordable housing and other services for low-income residents. Jeanne Montross, executive director of HOPE, said the supervised workers have helped haul firewood and sort through the agency’s warehouse, among other things.

“They are wonderful,” Montross said of the workers. “I had a list of things I wanted to talk to them about, and now they’re gone. It’s not a good thing. We don’t have the money to pay for a lot of maintenance.”

Area cemetery associations are also now left without a group of workers on whom they had relied for fence maintenance. Fire departments and Green-up Day committees had also used the sheriff’s department work crews, to great success. The work crews had also worked with Middlebury’s water department in clearing hundreds of fire hydrants during the winter.

“It’s a shame,” Coons said of the program’s demise. “There were a lot of good things that were done.”

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